Confessions of an Early Math Researcher

Do early math teachers and researchers grow up loving the subject? It was not the case for Dr. Linda M. Platas, who takes us through her unlikely career path and how she ultimately discovered that she is, in fact, good at math.

As a teacher educator who researches and supports young children’s mathematical learning, I meet teachers in preschool classrooms, college courses, and professional development workshops and presentations. I frequently hear a common refrain: “I’m just not good at math.” I often think, if they only knew.

You see, I’ve got a confession of sorts.

Math Avoidance

I remember long, long ago feeling wonderful about math. Unfortunately, that feeling lasted only until second grade. Then, I began to struggle. In fifth grade, I remember thinking that fractions and negative numbers were the same thing (after all, one-half was less than one and negative numbers were also less than one, right?).

By the time I took geometry in high school I was looking for a way out. I did well in all of my other subjects—I especially loved reading. But whenever I engaged in math problems, I felt like there was a fog in my head. Geometry was the last math class I would take in high school.

Then came college. Actually, many colleges—three community colleges and four state universities (but that’s another story for another time!). I managed to escape taking any math courses until I returned to school many years later to complete my bachelor’s degree in child and adolescent development. By that point, somebody had raised the ante, and I was forced to take math as a graduation requirement.

Back to Basics

I dreaded it—just thinking about math made my heart pound. I felt that I had missed fundamental math concepts throughout my education. But I knew that in order to finish my degree, I would need to pass a math class. So the summer before I went back to school at the local community college, I bought an inexpensive piece of computer software with workbooks that provided math problems and guidance beginning at the kindergarten level (at the cash register, I contemplated fibbing and saying I was buying it for another student).

I did every problem. When I ran into difficulties, I asked my daughter, who was in high school, to explain, which was more than a little humbling (although, bless her heart, she was really patient!). Before the fall semester started, I had to take a math placement test. Although I felt confident about the math that I had learned over the summer, the placement test made me anxious. I chose to take the lowest-level test and was placed in a non-unit-bearing math course (I was thrilled they didn’t send me back to third grade!). Again, I did every problem and paid close attention in class. It wasn’t as if I were a math whiz—I had a short disagreement with the instructor about rounding before realizing that I had misunderstood the entire concept—but math started to make sense. I would even say that I started to see a kind of beauty in algebra (don’t laugh—it’s true!). Everything in the equations balanced in a cool sort of way. I finished with one of the highest grades in the class (back when they posted such things for everyone to see).  

The only problem with non-unit-bearing classes? They don’t count toward graduation. Which meant that now I had to take a math class that would count. I enrolled in a statistics class, did every problem, and paid close attention in class. By now, you have probably ascertained a pattern. Math takes engagement.

What I was also coming to realize was that I wasn’t bad at math. After passing that statistics course, I was able to enroll in a state university to complete the last two years of my bachelor’s degree. I took another statistics class. I’d like to say that was a choice, but it was actually a requirement. I made it to graduation.

Unexpected Career Path

After spending 14 years teaching young children, I now wanted to teach teachers—and that would require another degree. I was accepted into the master’s and PhD program in education at University of California, Berkeley. Again, I would be required to complete a statistics course. But, by now, I kind of liked statistics. Above all, I discovered it was useful in answering some important questions about education. Imagine my surprise when I was offered a graduate research position to study a large-scale intervention in early math. Children are amazing mathematicians when given the opportunity and support. 

Right after my PhD graduation, I was offered an opportunity to work with a team of well-known researchers to create a developmentally appropriate oral assessment for primary grades 1-3 in low- and middle-income countries. The Early Grades Mathematics Assessment measures essential early math knowledge and skills and has been used in over 30 countries.

Now, exactly 20 summers after I returned to school, I spend much of my time thinking about math.

I have had amazing opportunities to work across the globe helping to make math meaningful to young children and teachers. I’ve worked with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); United States Agency for International Development (USAID); World Health Organization (WHO); World Bank; and quite a few ministries of education on early math.

I’ve had the good fortune to team up with the DREME Network, where we think and talk about early math 24/7. 

And, I must confess, I’m good at math.

About the Author

Linda M. Platas is the acting chair of the Child and Adolescent Development Department at San Francisco State University.